Trump's New Approach to the Middle East
President Trump has so far prudently avoided what his three post-Cold War era predecessors couldn’t – starting a new war that is unnecessary for American safety and security. But continued “maximum pressure” could ultimately lead the United States into the very type of endless war in the Middle East that the president has rightly criticized in the past. Those who are worried that we could end up in another shooting war in the region are no latter-day Chicken Littles. The threat of an imprudent conflict with Iran is real.
Of course, even the most committed Iran hawks in the Trump administration who are pushing for an antagonistic stance claim they want a peaceful change in relations, not a military overthrow of the current regime. Unfortunately, the actions of those same individuals are setting the conditions that could lead us into war.
Unintended or otherwise, the U.S.'s "maximum pressure campaign" is more likely to result in Iran restarting its nuclear weapons program or lashing out with direct or proxy attacks – the administration's interventionists would use both with a marketable casus belli. This could be a significant Iranian departure from the restrictions on enrichment and stockpiling in the practically-dead Iran nuclear agreement, a clash – intended or otherwise - between Iranian forces or its proxies and American troops lingering in Syria, or a naval skirmish in the Persian Gulf.
Already we saw tensions increase when both Iran and the United States took defensive measures due to the risk they saw in each other's moves after the attacks on tankers near the United Arab Emirates earlier this month. Although tensions have subsided, Trump's National Security Advisor John Bolton said last Thursday, "I don't think this threat is over," and indicated the U.S. could present evidence this week that “Iran or their surrogates” were responsible for the tanker strikes. Nothing other than Trump’s own caution seems to be slowing down Bolton and company.
Fortunately, the president does not desire an actual hot war with Iran. In discussions with Pentagon leaders recently, he told them he didn’t want a military conflict with Iran, something that Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan reiterated on Wednesday, noting: “When the president says he doesn’t want a war with Iran, I think that is pretty clear.” Trump has even downplayed any desire to achieve the cause that animates his many anti- Iran subordinates, saying this week in Japan that “We’re not looking for regime change. I just want to make that clear. We’re just looking for no nuclear weapons.”
The problem with our Middle East policy is there are those in the administration and the foreign policy establishment in Washington who think that the only satisfactory means to that goal is to bring Iran to its knees one way or another. Some, like Bolton, have broader and more dangerous designs for the region. As the New York Times noted, Bolton has “privately expressed” he is frustrated that Trump is “unwilling to push for more transformative changes in the Middle East.”
But war and the kind of transformative change Bolton has in mind are the last things we need right now in the Middle East. Indeed, they would undermine U.S. security and prosperity. We’ve seen how that story unfolds in our very recent past. The idealistic and radical idea that we need to remake the Middle East is what got us into the Iraq War debacle, the endless nation-building project in Afghanistan, and smaller but still unhelpful wars to reshape the political order in Libya and Syria – wars that President Trump has rightly and continuously criticized. Since these aren’t ancient history, is it too much to expect that we ought to learn from our mistakes and pursue a new, productive path?
Rather than expending U.S. economic and military power in the Middle East, President Trump should remember his own words in this year’s State of the Union address when he said that “Great nations do not fight endless wars” and reminded us that as a candidate he pledged a “new approach” to the Middle East. We should be withdrawing troops from places like Afghanistan and Syria, not sending more forces or contemplating new conflicts.
Now is not the time to revert to an approach that has proven to fail. The United States doesn’t need to – and simply cannot - transform the Middle East to its liking, as we’ve seen so vividly over the last 20 years. Instead, a hostile approach would further destabilize the region in ways that would even be bad for our friends there. It would also roil the international economy and thus undermine the economic progress we’ve seen over the last two years. Moreover, a conflict with Iran that went beyond ineffective airstrikes would be very costly in terms of American lives as well as increase the financial burden on Americans today by ballooning our national debt.
Even though Iran is clearly a malevolent actor and no friend to America, it also isn't a 100-foot giant that can seriously threaten our homeland or dominate the region. It spent only $13 billion last year on its military, which is about what we spend on building one aircraft carrier. It is checked by two powerful countries with nuclear weapons—Israel and Pakistan—as well as by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Turkey.
Trump should trust his instincts: Middle Eastern wars are losers for America. This means keeping a tight leash on the Iran interventionist and unwinding the dangerous conditions they have created, tacking back to the importance of minimizing our onshore military presence in the Middle East, and pushing his diplomats to find a path forward for a nuclear deal that can trump Obama’s. Or maybe even the personal diplomatic touch.
Will Ruger is Vice President of Policy and Research at the Charles Koch Institute